Meena Krishnamurthy, the editor of Philosopher, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and in the Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Michigan. She works in political philosophy on a variety of issues such as the value of democracy and the nature of our duties toward the global poor. The underlying theme that runs through her work is a concern with equality (political, economic, and social). She is currently writing a series of related papers on the work of some of the radical political thinkers mentioned below.
Decolonizing Analytic Political Philosophy
[What follows is an excerpt from my remarks at the Canadian Philosophical Association’s EquiT Panel on “Decolonizing Philosophy.” Thanks to Chike Jeffers for inviting me to participate and to the other speakers for their contributions.]
A story that I was often told as a student – indeed, one I have since retold my own students – is that contemporary analytic political philosophy began with John Rawls. After John Stuart Mill’s work on utilitarianism in the 19th century there was no further work in political philosophy, the debate was considered settled, until the publication of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, which was foremost a rejection of Mill’s utilitarianism.
I am not the only one who has been told this “standard story”. As Charles Mills’ notes, the standard story is one that is prevalent in the discipline and appears in works across analytic and continental political philosophy.
I came to realize just how false this story was about two years ago. Two years ago, I decided that I would like to learn more about politics and political thought in India. I was interested in these things because my family is from India. My parents often talked about British colonialism and Indian independence. They also talked about how the dialogues between Gandhi and Nehru about these things shaped their own thoughts and experiences in India during the time. Essentially, I wanted to learn more about where my people were from and what shaped their history and thinking. At the time, I took my reading about these things to be recreational.
I began with Hind Swaraj, Gandhi’s treatise on the immorality of British Colonialism and the moral importance of Indian self-rule. To get a better understanding of some of Gandhi’s views about non-violence and its importance in resistance, I turned to Martin Luther King Jr. as an American interpreter of Gandhi. I began with Why We Can’t Wait and then read many of King’s other books including Strength to Love, Stride Toward Freedom, and Where Do We Go From Here. This was only the beginning. To understand King better, I read Malcolm X and then slowly started reading the Black political thinkers who preceded both King and Malcolm X and shaped their thinking. I became fascinated with W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Booker T. Washington – thinkers who I would later come to realize influenced Gandhi (and some of his Indian critics) greatly.
What I came to realize was that this work was deeply philosophical and, more importantly for me, engaged with some of the most important questions in political philosophy about social, political, and economic inequality. What I also realized was that most of this work took place in the so-called dark times in political philosophy – when supposedly nothing was being written in political philosophy.
As the work of Gandhi, King, Malcolm X, Washington, Du Bois, and many others demonstrates, the dark times were not so dark. The years between Mill and Rawls were a very productive time.
Why then have these times been dubbed the dark and unproductive years? One answer is suggested by the (North American) academe itself, where thinkers like Gandhi and his Dalit critic B.R. Ambedkar are delegated to classes on “Indian Political Thought” in political theory or classes on Du Bois and Washington fall under “Black” or “African American Studies”. Among other things, what this suggests is that the work of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Du Bois, Washington, and many other radical political thinkers is not considered “philosophy”.
There are many reasons for why we should be worried about the exclusion of these thinkers from the discipline of philosophy.
The first reason is epistemological. Exclusion of this work from political philosophy is problematic because it means that political philosophy has not benefitted from the unique and distinct political insights of these thinkers. In my paper, “White Ignorance and Racial Oppression as a Transformative Experience,” building on an argument I trace back to Martin Luther King Jr., I argue that oppression involves a distinct phenomenal or what it is like experience, namely, the experience of what it is like to belong to a social category that is negatively valued by others. This is an experience that the racially oppressed are most likely to have. When Du Bois and King write about what makes racial oppression wrong it is based on their experience of what it is like to be racially oppressed. This is something that the racially oppressed are in the best position to do. The racially oppressed often have distinct knowledge claims to develop and convey. In excluding the voices of the oppressed we miss out on these distinctive contributions and we lose the opportunity to learn from them. As a result, our political theories of justice and equality may become epistemically distorted. To avoid this, we must take the voices of the oppressed and colonized seriously.
The second reason is social. On many people’s views, philosophy is in a state of crises. Academics and public intellectuals outside of professional analytic political philosophy believe that it has become irrelevant to today’s most important social and political struggles and, in turn, that it is disconnected from the concerns of today’s people. People are left wondering what the purpose of political philosophy is if it cannot be used to challenge today’s structures of injustice.
Many historical thinkers including Aristotle and Plato have held that philosophy’s true purpose is ultimately to aid us in ensuring the just and good life. If they are right about this, then including radical political thinkers in mainstream analytic political philosophy may bring us closer to realizing philosophy’s true purpose by helping us theorize about some of the most important political issues of our time.
Furthermore, it has been widely noted that philosophy also lacks diversity among its student body. In part, this may be because of philosophy’s lack of connection to real and lived social injustices. At least some (certainly not all) people of color, who are concerned with contemporary racism, for example, leave philosophy and turn to other disciplines to understand and address issues of racial injustice. Similar things can be said of those who are interested in colonialism. One reason for including such a broad range of thinkers is that we might be able to increase the number of minority students enrolled in philosophy courses and programs.
One might object, arguing that these sorts of reasons could be given in favour of counting almost anything as philosophy. The real question, one might suggest, is whether the work of Gandhi and other radical political thinkers is actually philosophy.
This question brings us to the third reason for considering the work of Gandhi, Ambedkar, King, Malcolm X, Washington, Du Bois, and many other radical political thinkers as part of philosophy properly understood. Philosophy at its core is a method. It is the method of critical reflection, the giving of reasons in favour of one’s conclusions, and the consideration of potential objections to the reasons that one gives, and the development of responses to these objections. All of the thinkers that I have mentioned today engaged in this method. For example, following a tradition that can be traced to classical Hindu texts such as the Upanishads, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj is written as a dialogue. (Gandhi was also an avid reader of Plato’s dialogues.) In it, Gandhi outlined his arguments in support of Indian home rule and he responded to concerns that are raised by an imagined interlocutor. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King responded critically to the 8 clergymen who asked him to wait patiently for justice. King’s letter was a rejection of the reasons that they gave for waiting and an argument in favour of immediate action. Du Bois developed his own views about the wrongness of racism and the best means to eradicate it. In Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois responded critically to the writings of Washington. Malcolm X not only developed his own original views, but did so in critical response to King and Gandhi’s work, among others. The works of these radical political thinkers are deeply philosophical (in the analytic sense).
The fact that the true philosophical nature of this work was and continues to be ignored suggests another and more pernicious reason for the exclusion of these thinkers from contemporary analytic political philosophy: namely, white supremacy.
The discussions that I have mentioned so far took place between people of color and, for the most part, only people of color. To consider an example in slightly more detail consider the work of Du Bois, Washington, Garvey, Gandhi, and Ambedkar. I focus on these thinkers only because my own current work is in relation to them and I think they are a good example of the phenomenon that I have in mind. Their work represents a discussion that took place between the four of them, four people of colour who were challenging the political systems of their time. Du Bois’s initial work was a response to Washington’s; Garvey’s was a response to Du Bois. Du Bois and Garvey were also responding and taking into account Gandhi’s work and thought. Ambedkar was responding not only to Gandhi, but taking into account Du Bois’s work on racism. It might be that this body of work has been traditionally discounted because it was not engaging with the work of other white philosophers. Unlike Rawls, this discussion did not take John Stuart Mill as its starting point. If a discussion wasn’t in response to or taking seriously or developing the thought of other white philosophers, then it seems that it wasn’t and still isn’t considered philosophy. As Charles Mills suggests, the “philosophical color line still exists.”
Furthermore, it is important to note that this body of work challenges the white supremacy that underlies racial discrimination and colonialism more broadly. What we have then is a group of predominantly white philosophers discounting work done by philosophers of colour that challenges the legitimacy of an ideology and set of institutions that have worked to benefit white individuals.
In short, the genuinely philosophical nature of work by Indian and African American thinkers has been systematically ignored. To the extent that white voices are privileged and challenges to white supremacy are not considered to be real philosophy, philosophy as it is traditionally conceived may itself be understood an expression of white supremacy. This is perhaps the most important reason to “decolonize” philosophy. We should decolonize philosophy because if we don’t, then philosophy remains philosophy of the privileged. It would then be a philosophy not worthy of the name “philosophy.”
In response, it might be argued that, even if some works by radical political thinkers were philosophical, some of their writings were less so. More specifically, it might be argued, there are some works that did not engage in the philosophical method of giving reasons and considering and responding to objections.
I concede the point. Some of the works by the radical political thinkers I have mentioned may not themselves be works in analytic political philosophy. However, this does not mean that these works are not appropriate or good for philosophical consideration. Philosophy is a method that can be brought by us – the readers – to any work. Pamphlets, journals, dialogues, plays, poetry, fiction, songs, and even visual art become appropriate grounds for philosophical exploration. In taking up this approach, we can develop reasons that are implicit in what is conveyed. We can develop an account of reasons that should have been developed given the other thoughts expressed by the author or creator. We can also imagine what we might give as reasons today in relation to whatever is being discussed or expressed by the creator. We can use the experiences that are described as a basis for making our own arguments about justice and the good life. Of course, these are just a few things we can do as part of engaging in the philosophical method when we approach diverse mediums. There are likely many other things that we can do when we approach something philosophically.
In short, we have good reasons for decolonizing philosophy and considering the work of both Indian and African American political thinkers as an important part of analytic political philosophy.
 My thinking here has benefitted from Charles Mills, Decolonizing Western Political Philosophy, New Political Science, 37:1, 1-24; John Drabinski, “Philosophy, Decolonization, #NotAllWhites” and Diversity, “Neutrality,” Philosophy; Eric Schliesser, “Pursuing the Truth in and about the Philosophy Canon; On The Very Idea of Western Philosophy”; Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is”; Lisa Shapiro, “What is a Philosophical Cannon” Thanks also to Esa Diaz Leon for feedback on an earlier draft.
 Charles Mills, Decolonizing Western Political Philosophy, New Political Science, 37:1, 1-24 at pp. 5-7.
 This line of argument can be found here, Amod Lee, “Why philosophy departments have focused on the West.”
 Mills, “Decolonizing Western Political Philosophy,” p. 8.
 On this see Lisa Shapiro, “What is a Philosophical Cannon,” p. 14. Shapiro has a somewhat different understanding of what constitutes a philosophical work. On her view, there is no preferred method of doing philosophy. What is most central is the questions that drive the work. I agree that questions are central to analytic philosophy to the extent that they are often part of the analytic method itself, the method of giving reasons for an argument (i.e., rhetorical questions) and raising objections (through questions). Questions are relevant, however, only because they are part of the preferred analytic method.